Interview with 2009 AIA Gold Medal Winner Glenn Murcutt
Architects & Firms
Glenn Murcutt has designed no tall buildings, no sleek museums, no flamboyant performance venues. His one-person practice has specialized almost exclusively in modest, single-story houses, all in Australia. Why, then, did the AIA honor him with its 65th Gold Medal?
Writing in support of Murcutt’s nomination, Tadao Ando noted that the ecosystem is a new concern for most of us, but “Glenn Murcutt has always been focusing on the geographical and regional conditions, from the very beginning of his career.”
Since opening his Sydney office in 1969, Murcutt has designed the kind of buildings the world needs most: economical, energy-efficient, graceful, small structures. While his work is local, its influence — propagated in part by his worldwide lectures and design classes — is global. In 2002, he was awarded the Pritzker Prize.
Murcutt’s 1975 Marie Short House, located on a floodplain in subtropical Kempsey, New South Wales, initiated a series of lightweight houses that adhere to the Aboriginal notion of “touching the earth lightly.” Murcutt often floats his buildings a few feet from the ground on posts, to protect against storm water and insects and maximize ventilation. He favors narrow linear plans, oriented east—west, to amplify summer breezes and winter sun, and wraps his houses in movable louvers, screens, and glass doors, making them comfortable in all seasons, without air-conditioning.
A decade ago, Murcutt started to expand his range. He completed the Boyd Education Center in Riversdale, New South Wales, in 1999, with his architect-wife, Wendy Lewin. He is now working with Hakan Elevli on a mosque outside of Melbourne and with Lewin on an underground mineral museum in Lightning Reach, an arid area west of Brisbane.
Architectural Record: Why do you consider drawing so important?
Glen Murcutt: We are taught that creativity is the most important thing in architecture. Well, I don’t believe that. I think that the creative process leads to discovery, and discovery is the most important thing. I’m suggesting that any work of architecture — as opposed to merchandise — has the potential to be discovered, and drawing is the key.
The verb to draw means “to bring out,” and to bring out is to reveal, and to reveal is to understand. With the computer, you arrive at the end before you comprehend the meaning of that end.
One of the great problems of our period is that we’ve developed tools that allow rapidity, but rapidity and repetitiveness do not lead to right solutions. Perception gives us right solutions. I know that one can use a computer to discover, but what it produces is form; it can be sculpture, but not necessarily architecture. There’s so much work today that’s different for the sake of difference. It creates loud architecture that screams at you.
Your buildings are quiet but also have a kind of difference. In fact, you’ve been credited with creating a modern Australian architecture. How did your approach evolve?
The difference in my architecture grew out of circumstance. For the first 10 years, my practice did almost nothing but alterations and additions, but I learned that there were many ways to solve a problem. Those small projects built up a way of thinking and doing things that applies to all scales of work. I see myself as trying to create an architecture of its place, of its time, of its technology, of its culture.
The principles of architecture are questions. Before starting any project I ask: What’s the geology, what’s the geomorphology, what’s the history, where does the wind come from, where does the sun come from, what are the shadow patterns, what’s the drainage system, what’s the flora? I’m just working in my own milieu in a way that’s appropriate. It’s an attitude, and I take it as a total responsibility.
Why have you chosen to remain a one-man operation?
I love silence and time to think. Being alone means I can survive very well with little overhead; I can weather recessions. It also allows me to travel and experiment with wind patterns, materials, light, climate, spaces. I like the freedom.
I was raised on the notion of the individual. My father used to give us a dose of Henry David Thoreau three times a day, seven days a week. He often told us, “Don’t rush after success, and if it comes, make sure the people at the beach still don’t recognize you.” I’ve always worked under the radar.
You’ve said you’ll never stop designing houses. What is their appeal?
They’re among the most difficult tasks. As with larger buildings, you have to make something that’s appropriate to the site and to available materials and technology, and it must meet budgetary constraints. But designing a house is also a most intimate task, which makes it most difficult.
You have said that technological solutions to environmental issues tend to be the wrong solutions.
Usually there are more economical ways of doing things. If the shape of your building creates positive and negative pressure systems, you will get air flowing without fans. If you have open windows, you are acting more responsibly toward the planet than if you have air- conditioning. You can cool roofs most economically by having very good insulation on the roof itself. Such thinking is innate with me.
Take the LEED program; it fosters architecture by numbers, and that’s wrong. Architecture by logic is not wrong. In my country, you get no credit if the building is not air-conditioned. How stupid is that? LEED disregards the connection between humans and nature.
You are a meticulous craftsman. What, for you, is the role of craft in architecture?
I worked in my father’s joinery shop from the age of 11, and he drilled into me the idea of doing even the smallest thing extraordinarily well. But crafting is only the means by which architecture is made; it’s not architecture. Architecture is space, light, function, walls that open and close, vents that open. In my country, it’s about handling heavy rainfalls. Architecture is not merchandise, and it’s not just an object in itself. Like a violin, it’s an instrument that’s part of an orchestra or quartet. Like a yacht, you should be able to modify and manipulate its form and skin according to seasonal conditions.
What about your choice of materials?
Again, you have to ask the right questions: How much energy is required to produce the material? How much will the material reduce energy use in the building? One of the few sustainable materials is timber. Steel and aluminum require much more energy to produce. They should be used sparingly.
One of the most sustainable ideas has to do with building in a way that allows you to reclaim and reuse materials. So you don’t use nails; you use screws and bolts. When I expanded the Laurie Short House that I built in Sydney in 1974, I was able to unbolt, totally dismember, and move the verandah.
More labor, less materials. That’s what our countries need.
You teach design studios at many universities around the world. What are the most important ideas you want your students to take away?
They must think that every project they do is worthy of being.
Their work has to speak about place, technology, climate, structure, materials. They must work honestly, with heart and mind, rather than structuring what is a visual delight alone. Their work has to have roots. I think what we admire most about architecture of all periods is rootedness, authenticity. We recognize authenticity, and we recognize the five-minute flash. The authentic lives on; the flash quickly dies.